What qualifies one as a lead? Peggy Ashcroft went back and forth the whole awards season for her performance in A Passage to India, winning three Best Actress awards and two Best Supporting Actress awards before finally getting the Oscar:
But was she lead or supporting? One can make the case that the leads are solely Judy Davis and Victor Banerjee, for reasons we shall get into when we cover A Passage to India in future posts. One can also make the case that Davis, Banerjee, Ashcroft, and James Fox all share lead status, or that Ashcroft and Davis are both leads, or that only Banerjee is the lead, or...well, as I said, we'll get into it. The only clear thing about Ashcroft is that she was going to win, period. There was not a single award that she was up for that she lost, and she was nominated for everything.
As was Christine Lahti for Swing Shift, a dramedy about women who went to work in the steel factories while the men were overseas serving their country during World War Two. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell star, but Lahti steals the show, and received the film's only nomination (by the way, although it doesn't have the best reputation, I quite like Swing Shift - it's more complex than its critics give it credit for, and if Hawn's protagonist seems a bit muddled...well, yeah, she is, so what?).
Another lone acting nominee here is the oft-nominated Geraldine Page for The Pope of Greenwich Village. The movie's about a pair of cousins, perpetual screw-ups who feel they can never catch a break, wind up causing a cop's death while trying to rip off mobsters. Page is the cop's momma, basically a cameo. I'm surprised hers is the only nod for her movie: while a little overlong and tonally all over the place, there are some solid performances throughout, the most notable being Eric Roberts as the most irritating piece-of-shit you've ever seen.
Also nominated were Lindsay Crouse, whose film Places in the Heart we've discussed before and will again, and Glenn Close for The Natural, where she plays the good girl hometown love of the titular character, a miraculously gifted ballplayer given a second chance. Interesting fantasy-sports drama, one we'll get into next week. Anyway, the nominees:
Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore
A Passage to India
only nomination; BAFTA Award winner for Best Actress (1985), Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actress, LAFCA Award winner for Best Supporting Actress, National Board of Review's Best Actress of 1984, NYFCC Awards winner for Best Actress
Now, this is a performance that will reveal my limitations as a writer. How do I tell you how Ashcroft plays Mrs. Moore with enough of an openness to this new experience and meeting the people of India on their own terms that she comes across as genuinely decent and caught off guard by her son's colonial mindset, yet with enough of a casual, experienced middle-class refinement that we don't question where his entitlement comes from, that we aren't puzzled by the moments when the culture shock actually takes hold? All I can tell you is that she does, without any sort of fuss at all, with a light in her eyes that conveys genuine interest - actual listening, without having to cock her head or react or any other obvious suggestions of such. The woman was 75 at this point, she was experienced, a pro - if you saw her performance in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, you knew from the very beginning she could work miracles with a less-is-most approach. I think Mrs. Moore is a supporting role; I think Ashcroft won lead plaudits other places because her performance is so indelible, you figure she must be...
Glenn Close as Iris Gaines
Where did I read that even Close said her nomination was less about her performance than about Caleb Deschanel's lighting? Unfair. As the good girl from our ball player's past, she doesn't just provide warmth, she grounds him in reality. The private jokes, the bittersweet might-have-beens, the joy and nervousness and guardedness and familiarity - all are in Close's eyes, the corners of her mouth, the little hesitations before answering. She breathes life into this archetype. Yes, the lighting around her in the climax is a big thing, but if Close hadn't put in the work on the character leading up to the moment, we wouldn't care.
Lindsay Crouse as Margaret Lomax
Places in the Heart
Crouse paved the way with her barn burner of a scene in The Verdict two years before. She's a master of the closeup calculation, putting things together, coming to decisions about her work, her marriage, her husband's infidelity. And she's a believably solid presence in her sister's life. So confident is Crouse's performance, you want her to run the whole town.
Christine Lahti as Hazel Zanussi
only acting nomination; NYFCC Awards winner for Best Supporting Actress; Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress, LAFCA Awards runner-up for Best Supporting Actress
The next-door neighbor whose bold style and late nights (she sings at a nightclub) give her a reputation for being a tramp, Lahti's Hazel is a hell of a lady. Part of the effectiveness is her physicality: she never tries to pretend she's any shorter than her 5'10" height, never tries to diminish herself to make others feel comfortable, and she always moves with grace and purpose. Another part is as simple as her line readings: some actors have a gift for making the written word seem as natural as a spontaneous thought. Lahti's that actor. Indeed, so fully formed is her Hazel from the word "go," you wonder why she isn't the main character (and indeed, it almost seems like she could be the co-lead...were it not a Goldie Hawn movie).
Geraldine Page as Mrs. Ritter
The Pope of Greenwich Village
A real mutha of a mother. Establishes a street-smart coarseness and devotion to her son in her first scene, then in her second, makes grown men - cops, no less - crumble before her. And she never leaves her chair. The accent, the sneer, the look - little embellishments to distinguish this character from her others. No, this performance, this nomination, is all about Geraldine Page's specific star power. She owns it.
I agree with the Academy - my vote goes to:
A PASSAGE TO INDIA
Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Supporting Actor: Adolph Caesar (A Soldier's Story), John Malkovich (Places in the Heart), Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (The Karate Kid), Dr. Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields), and Sir Ralph Richardson (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes).